The Woman of Revelation 12

The woman in Revelation 12 has been the subject of many a treatise and a variety of proposals for her identification has been advanced. This is a cursive outline of the merits of Mary as the woman in Revelation 12, with a discussion of the weaknesses of this proposal as well. For the sake of brevity, the paper will hit the major points in the proposal with footnoted documentation to the fuller discussion of the issues mentioned. The identification of the woman as Mary is neither universal nor without problems, but neither is the identification of the woman in any other proposal.


The Book of Revelation differs from the rest of the New Testament in a variety of respects. The form, structure and content of the Book defy self-evident description. As a result, the elements of the narrative demand further investigation to be understood. The cultural matrix of the Ancient Near East provides a number of interesting parallels to these narrative features. All of these comparisons are with small sections of the text, not an overall construct for the Book as a whole. In addition, the received text of the Book has a much larger number of variations than the rest of the NT. What follows is a brief review of background items that have relevance to the events in Chapter 12.

Textual issues

Revelation is without a doubt the most unsettled text in the Greek New Testament. Despite this large number of variants, most do not pose theological problems or uncertainty to the meaning of the text. They arise mostly due to the poor quality of the grammar in the text. This invites corrective action by scribes over the years. Another factor influencing the variant count is the early canonical debate meant that little use was made of book so scribes might have felt free to correct some obvious errors. [1]

Within Chapter 12 there are three small textual issues. One is simply a question of versification of the text, one plays to the time period of the narrative and the last concerns the role of the author in the vision. None of these plays to concerns on the identity of the woman in Chapter 12. [2]

The Place of Chapter 12 in the narrative

There are a number of proposals for the overall structure of the Book of Revelation. One of the areas that is unclear is the placement of chapter 12 in the structure of the Book. This chapter breaks into a running pattern of numbered lists making the structural division of the Book more difficult. Revelation is easily marked by these numbered series of events:

1:4-3:22 Seven letters
5-6, 8:1 Seven seals
8-9, 11:15-19 Seven trumpets
15-16 Seven bowls

Into this sequence of series of seven are inserted passages of various length, content and form that make the formation of a sequential outline difficult. There is no agreement on the discernable pattern to the interjections in the series, nor does the content of the narrative seem to drive their structural location either. The events described in Chapter 12 are one such insertion. [3]

By attempting to resolve the insertions into a cohesive structure, Revelation can be seen as a prologue, a seven-part letter concluded with an epilogue. In this structure Chapter 12 is one of two Òsongs of triumphÓ that follow the third woe after the second series of judgements. These songs form part of the interlude in the narrative and along with the visions provide hope for the future in the midst of the coming trials. [4]

1:1-3 Prologue
1:4-20 John writes the Seven Churches
2-3 Problem of the book in the letters to the Seven Churches
4-5 Vision of God
6-20:3 The Judgments, series of three.
1st series 6
2nd series 7:9-8:13
3 woes 9-11:19
2 Songs of Triumph 12-13
Visions 14-15:4
3rd series 15:5-20:3
21:9-22:2, 14-15, 17; 20:4-10 Millennial Kingdom
20:11-15 Judgment throne
21:1-5; 22:3-5 Everlasting Kingdom
21:5-8; 22:6-7, 8-10, 12-13, 16, 18, 20-21 Epilogue

This structural view of the numbered lists dominating, makes the events of Chapter 12 some kind of insertion to the narrative to support the main flow in the numbered sequences. As a Òsong of triumph,Ó Chapter 12 sets the stage for the final vision and series of judgments.

An alternative view is to see the entire book as a series of visions. In this case, Chapter 12 is another vision within that sequence in the book. This system is not perfect either. There are still insertions of material outside the visions within the book to deal with. In this structural analysis these elements are like intermezzo added for poetic effect. Here the structure of Revelation is compared to epic poetry like the Aeneid. Both in structure and the editorial activity that creates this structure after the initial composition by the original author. In this view, the episode of Chapter 12 is part of the logical progression in the visions through the book. [5]

1:1-8 Prologue
1:9-3:22 Vision of Jesus the Messiah introducing seven letters
4-6; 8:1
7:1-17 Intermezzo
Vision of heaven introducing the seven seals Intermezzo: the sealing of the redeemed on earth & bliss of the redeemed in heaven
10:1-11:13 intermezzo
Vision of heaven introducing seven trumpets Intermezzo: episode of angels & booklet; apocalypse of two witnesses
Vision of the dragon Intermezzo: the bliss of the redeemed in heaven; episode of angels and doom on earth
15-16 Vision of heaven introducing seven bowls
17:1-20:10 Vision of Doom
20:11-22:5 Vision of new heaven & earth
22:6-21 Epilogue

In this structure, Chapter 12 is an integral part of the book’s structural trajectory, not simply a supporting character to break up the pace. The vision presented of the woman in heaven and the fall of Satan are along the main path of the narrative structure.

Yet another alternative combines the series of seven with the series of visions. We could see the events of Chapter 12 as part of another series of seven. By numbering the vision scenes, we have another series of seven. This makes the scene in Chapter 12 an integral part of the series of seven structure, not an interlude or counterpoint. [6]

1-3 Seven messages
4-7 Seven seals
8:1-11:14 Seven trumpets
11:15-14:20 Seven unnumbered visions 12:1-17
Woman & Dragon
Beast from Sea
Beast from the earth
Lamb & 144,000
Three Angels
Son of Man
Seven Angels
15-18 Seven bowls
19-22 Seven unnumbered visions

Revelation can also be seen as two stories welded together into a parallel structure. The start of the second section is Chapter 12, which serves as the introduction to the book in parallel to the introduction to section one. [7]

1-3 Preface 12-13 Preface
4-11 Heavenly scene with scrolls and trumpet 14-20 The angels and the bowls
21-22 Conclusion

In this structure the events of Chapter 12 are part of the introductory narrative for the second section of the book. The chapter is essentially the introduction of the main characters of the conflict setting up the narrative.

In his sixth century commentary, Bishop Andreas of Caesarea divided Revelation into 24 logoi, one for each elder in heaven; these are then divided into three kefalaia, one for each of the threefold nature of man. The major divisions fall on the natural boundaries of the book constituting a structural analysis of the text. Andreas splits Chapter 12 into two logoi. [8] This structure acknowledges the ÒnumericÓ quality of the book. Revelation is replete with numbers of significance without having an easily discerned linear structure. The 24 elders are an internal element to the text and the divisions generated fall on natural boundaries.

logoi kefalaia
#11 11:11 11:11-14
#12 12:7 12:7-12

This structure sees the events of Chapter 12 as essentially two stories. The woman in the heavens is part of the description of the temple of God, concluding the trumpet series, while the battle with the dragon both in heaven and on earth are the next story. This structure would emphasize the two roles of the woman seen in Chapter 12. The first is clearly just a vision, while the second is more of a struggle between good and evil with more corporal implications.

The Latin commentator Primasius prepared an independent division of the book into 20 heads. Here the number is not connected directly to the text, but the divisions are again organized by textual boundaries, not arbitrary equal divisions of the book. [9]

#10 11:3-14
#11 11:15-12:17
#12 13:1-18

Here the seventh trumpet is joined to the vision of the woman and Chapter 12 is seen as a unified narrative. This suggests that the vision of chapter 12 is a concluding the series of trumpets.

All of these conflicting analyses of the structure of Chapter 12 in Revelation demonstrate the lack of clarity in this area. The function and purpose of Chapter 12 in the flow of the current narrative is far from certain.

Narrative Sources

The book of Revelation is replete with allusions and references to prior works in both the Old Testament and the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural works. Some of these references involve enough parallels in usage that some see them as written sources Revelation. Source critics, especially in the 19th century, have seen Revelation as an editorial collection of a wide variety of materials into the present form. But on the basis of unity of ideas and phrasing throughout Revelation, these source theories are soundly answered. [10] However, this unity of composition does not preclude an influence of prior literature, both Jewish and other ANE cultures. Below is a short review of the notable parallels that John may have drawn on for Revelation Chapter 12.

Chapter 12: Two stories joined

There are two distinct stories in Chapter 12 that show evidence of joining together. The question is, are they original compositions of John or editorial joining of two pre-existing narratives? Within Chapter 12, we see distinct scenes play out, one involving the woman and the dragon, the other the battle of heaven. [11] Some suggest these two stories are pre-existing Semitic originals or Greek translations of the same or stories borrowed from other ANE cultures. In this theory the stories are substantially the same as found here. They are integrated into the Revelation narrative, giving them a new Christian context. [12]

Similar ANE Myths

There were a number of myths circulating in the ANE that have similarities to the details in Chapter 12. At the same time, none is a perfect match for all of the elements in the Revelation narrative. But they do demonstrate that the images at play in Revelation have a broad usage across the region in varying details.

Goddess Queen of heaven

The image of the woman clothed in the sun with stars for a crown and the moon at her feet suggests a goddess figure. There are a number of candidates in ANE myths for this type of depiction. The image is not common for a goddess of the region, but this is not a new image either. This image is certainly more at home in the realm outside Jewish tradition than inside it. [13]

The Dragon

The text identifies the Dragon as the serpent and Satan, placing the character firmly in the Jewish tradition. But the figure of the dragon as the antagonist is widely attested in other ANE myths. The candidates are varied and none are precisely the same in all details, but the image is clearly borrowed and brought into the matrix of Jewish thought. [14]

Dragon’s attack on the woman

The celestial struggle between the dragon and the goddess has parallels in various mythologies in the region. The goddess Leto was pregnant with Apollo by Zeus. As she was giving birth, the dragon Python, who was trying to kill the child, pursued her. But Zeus sent Boreas to take Leto to Poseidon who provided an island of refuge for her. Four days after his birth Apollo killed Python in heaven. [15] A dragon called Typhon, who is blood-red in color, attacked the goddess Osiris in Egypt. A snake in the sky coils around the Iranian Sky Goddess of Light bringing on the darkness of the eclipse. [16] Persian mythology has the conflict between Ormazd and Ahriman in which Ahriman sends a three-headed dragon to capture the glory of heaven. The plan is foiled when glory hides in a lake nurtured by the water spirits. [17] In Canaanite culture Baal fights Yamm and Mot and is defeated. His consort Anat defeated them and thus freed Baal from imprisonment in the underworld. In the Accadian myth the goddess Inaras, daughter of the storm god, makes the storm god’s conquest of the dragon possible. [18]

Battle in heaven

A heavenly battle between the forces of good and evil is a common mythic foundation in both Greek and ANE cultures. The battle of the Titans in heaven, the destruction of Tiamat by Marduk, the Hittite battle between Kronos and Uranos to be ruler of the gods, and the Canaanite battle of Baal and Mot are examples. [19]

Similar Jewish Images

Many of these elements have parallels in Jewish literature as well. The battle in heaven is taken up in Jewish intertestamental literature. [20]

Dragon as Evil

Hebrew folklore uses the dragon as a symbol of evil. In Revelation 12 this is also connected to the serpent in the Garden of Eden and named Satan. This collects a variety of images of powerful evil from the Old Testament into this one archetypal figure. [21]

Cosmic elements around woman

The cosmic elements that surround the woman in Revelation 12 have a rich history of metaphorical use in the Old Testament. Seeing the cosmos as adornment or symbolic for the ruling will of God is a time-honored image in Jewish literature. [22]

Escape to the desert

The desert has a rich history as the place where Israel has a rich relationship under God’s protection. The Exodus experience culminating in the desert travel to the Promised Land is a defining moment in Judaism. The literature of the intertestamental-period takes up this theme in much the same way as in Revelation 12. Many of the details in the Revelation narrative hearken back to this desert experience of Israel. [23]

Eve in the Garden

This narrative has the woman, the serpent and the woman’s seed that all seem to parallel the story in Genesis 3. Revelation 12 links the two narratives by these elements of correspondance. [24] The woman’s son will crush the head of the serpent in the Genesis text. In Revelation 12, we see the serpent trying to prevent this course of events from playing out. [25]

Israel as a Woman

Jewish literature has a number of community metaphors that make Israel a woman in relationship to God. Daughter Zion, Bride of God, or even preexistent in heaven are personifications of the community used. Revelation 12 may have these images in mind casting the vision of the woman in heaven. [26]

Jerusalem Talmud on the messianic Birth

The Jerusalem Talmud relates the story of the disappearance of the Messiah by a mysterious wind right after his birth in Bethlehem. Here an elder visits the child on successive days. He first sees the child; then when he returns on the day of the destruction of the temple to protect the child, the child has already been taken away by God in a protective wind and his mother left behind. The birth occurs on the day of the destruction of the temple by the Romans. [27] This removal of the child immediately after birth provides some context for the similar removal that occurs in Revelation 12. By the normal Gospel accounts, one expects the Messiah to spend some time on earth after the birth, not removed immediately to heaven. This question of timing has troubled a number of commentators.

Form of the ANE Myths

The general form of a combat of the gods’ myth is outlined below. The events of chapter 12 are a near-perfect use of the general pattern.

Mythic Pattern Revelation 12
The Dragon pairÑthe opponent is a pair of beasts Verse 3
Chaos & Disorder Verse 4a
The Attack Verse 4b
The Champion Verse 5a
The Champion’s death Verse 5b
The Dragon’s ReignÑattacks the champion’s wife or mother. Verse 12b-17
Recovery of the champion Verse 7a
Battle renewed & Victory Verse 7b-9
Restoration of order Verse 10-12a

While the general pattern does hold up, there are some differences in the details of the narrative. An ally in Michael, not the God or his mother/consort accomplishes the victory. There is a change order noted, the reign of evil is at the end of the Revelation story, but the middle of the standard pattern. This is likely because the final victory of evil in Revelation is at the end of the book as a whole. In a sense, this combat myth is setting up the larger conclusion of the book that comes much later. Related to this change in form is the fact that order is restored only in heaven, not on earth in Chapter 12. [28]

Background conclusions

These background elements provide a rich context for the story as laid out in Revelation 12. They demonstrate that the images and actions are evocative of the basic struggle between good and evil as seen in the cultural matrix of the region. Some would see a direct usage of written sources in the creation of Revelation 12. But the evidence suggests to me a general use of common powerful images in the creation of a new Christian tale by John. [29]

The Woman of Revelation 12

The woman of Revelation 12 is not named or otherwise explicitly identified in the narrative, thus leaving open to discussion her identity. The primary proposals are either Mary or the Christian community. Both proposals have their merits and problems.

Mary as the woman of Revelation 12

There are a number of reasons why this woman is seen as Mary.

Mother of the Messiah

The child born in Revelation 12 is universally taken as the Messiah. The title for the child in verse 5 from Psalm 2:9 is a common messianic title. [30] Thus the mother of the Messiah should be taken as Mary. Further, the birth of the Messiah in Luke and Matthew is connected with the prophecy of a sign in Isaiah in 7:14. Revelation 12 is clearly a cosmic ÒsignÓ of a woman, which would quite naturally make the identity of the woman Mary. [31]

The flight to the desert can be seen as the Holy Family leaving to Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution. The Exodus association of Egypt and coming forth from the desert is found in the Gospel tradition. The exodus parallels are noted in background section above. The analogy with the flight to Egypt found appeal in the fathers, but other patristic traditions rejected this analogy. [32] In any case, the scene is a potential secondary allusion to events in Mary’s life, if not a primary one that lends credence to the identification of the woman with Mary.

Queen of heaven

The woman in Revelation 12 is depicted in images that denote a queen of heaven. Clearly a woman who is robed in the sun with the moon at her feet and a crown of 12 stars is a royal figure. The woman appearing in heaven in this royal garb would be a Goddess Queen with a variety of names and background stories in the different cultures cited above.

In the context of the Christian Church there is only one real candidate for ÒQueen of Heaven,Ó and that is Mary. The path to the title ÒQueen of HeavenÓ comes from the scriptural title ÒMother of the LordÓ given Mary by Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-45), and the espousal of Mary to the Holy Spirit in accepting a son (Luke 1:31-38). From this title by Elizabeth in the Fathers commentaries we proceed to ÒMother of God.Ó From these the titles Lady, Sovereign, Mistress and Queen naturally proceed, all prior to the Fifth Century. [33] The progression can be seen in the following examples. In the Seventh Century we see John of Thessalonica calling Mary ÒSovereign Lady of the universe.Ó [34] St. Andrew of Crete points out that Mary’s birth is like royalty. She enters the temple in a royal manner and is crowned in heaven as a queen. [35] No other candidate in the Christian tradition can approach Mary’s claim to the title ÒQueen of HeavenÓ and thus the identity of this royal heavenly woman in Revelation 12.

Opposite of Eve

The background section above notes the parallels between Eve and the woman of Revelation 12. Mary has been called the Ònew EveÓ since the second century fathers. [36] In this pericope we have the three elements of the Genesis 3 story, the woman, the serpent and the woman’s seed. John goes out of his way to make this connection with Genesis clear by calling the dragon the old serpent. Thus, the woman in Revelation 12 is placed in contrast to Eve in the Genesis account. The main problem with Eve in Genesis is her ÒNoÓ to the commandments of God. Mary, on the other hand, says ÒYesÓ to God’s plan in the incarnation. [37] Mary’s agreement is associated with the Annunciation scene, but the obvious parallel of Eve and Mary allows the association of Mary to the woman of Revelation 12. In Revelation we have a clear indication of parallel between the woman and Eve, making the identification of the woman as Mary quite natural.

Problems with Mary as the woman

Despite the obvious parallels listed above, many commentators do not see the woman in Revelation 12 as Mary. There are a number of flaws with the identification that are outlined in some detail below. At the outset, I would also point out that the alternative proposals for the woman’s identity are have problems, too. The identity of the woman is without a clear answer. This is more of an exercise in minimizing the difficulties in whatever position is taken. [38]

Earliest Patristic interpretation does not support Mary as the woman

While the identification of Mary as the woman in Revelation 12 is well attested in the patristic tradition of the Church, there is no support for this identification in the earliest fathers. [39] Those who dispute this identification with Mary, note that those closest in time to the composition of Revelation don’t seem to see Mary in this passage.

The first extant citation is from the 4th century in Epiphanius. This passage merely mentions the association exists without really endorsing the view wholeheartedly himself. He qualifies the identification with ÒI dare not affirm this with absolute certainty.Ó [40] But this silence of the early evidence is as much a reflection of the dearth of material interpreting Revelation at all from the time period. The references to any aspect of the book are few and far between in the extant literature. But the tepid mention by Epiphanius demonstrates that the existence of a Marian identification of the woman in the same time period was widespread enough that he could not pass the text without comment on it.

Typical of later interpretation of the fathers is Oecumenius; indeed he is likely the source for many later fathers. Oecumenius clearly takes the woman as Mary. She is robed in the ÒSun of Justice,Ó the moon at her feet is Moses and the Law which becomes the lesser light on the coming of Christ. [41]

Early Fathers are also literal in interpretation of the visions

Interpretation of the book of Revelation has taken two main paths in the fathers, literal or spiritual. This is especially true when considering the aspect of Christ’s earthly kingdom in the book. The earliest commentators tended to support the literal interpretation, possibly in opposition to the spiritual path being taken by the Gnostics at the time. [42] The spiritual interpretation of the book does become prominent in the later fathers. In this method the details of the various passages become the starting point for spiritual reflection of all kinds. For example, the association of Mary with the woman in Revelation 12 leads Oecumenius to spiritualize the events depicted in terms of Mary. Thus the move to the desert becomes the flight of the holy family to Egypt. The time period of 1260 days in Revelation is even applied to the move to Egypt. [43]

These early literal interpretations are generally rejected in favor of later spiritual ones. Similarly, perhaps the later Marian interpretations of the woman in Revelation 12 should take precedence as well.

Woman is the Christian Church

The most widely held alternative identification of the woman in Revelation 12 is the allegory of the Christian community. This view sees the strong parallels between this scene and the Jewish tradition of personifying Israel as a woman in relationship with God. In this model the Messiah is ÒbornÓ from the community. The community is the ÒmotherÓ from which the Messiah emerges. [44]

Mary = Christian Church for the Fathers

Patristic literature is replete with typologies of Mary and the Church. [45] All of the symbolic relationships that commentators see between the woman of Revelation 12 and the community can point to Mary as well through these typologies. This is not necessarily a case of either/or but both/and. In making the case for community identification, they are essentially affirming the Marian identification at the same time. [46]

This typology of Mary to Church actually builds from the earlier mentioned typology of Eve with Mary. By reversing the ÒNoÓ of Eve, Mary becomes identified with the remnant in the OT prophets and Psalms. [47]

Birth pangs

The woman in Revelation 12 experiences a painful childbirth. This contracts the early position of the Church that Mary gave birth without pain. Patristic interpreters that take the woman as Mary see the birth pangs as a spiritual allegory for the pain Mary felt as Joseph contemplated putting her aside due to the pregnancy or drinking the bitter water of Judaism (Numbers 5). [48] However, the painful birth described in Revelation 12 is one of the key reasons that others reject the identification of the woman with Mary. [49]

Qumran 1QH III. 1-18

The birth pangs can be seen as a simile for the coming of the messianic age. An example of this can be seen in the documents from Qumran. In the fifth thanksgiving Psalm (1QH III 1-18), the pains of birth and emergence from the womb are connected with cataclysmic events on earth. These all accompany the birth of a male child. The result of this cosmic upheaval is the opening up of Sheol and the release of the spirits imprisoned there. The adversary is described as the viper. [50] The sense of teacher is in this figure. The teacher of righteousness for the community is who bears this pain to bring for the messiah. The pain of the birth is described with a similar intensity as Revelation 12. The woman bears the male child amid the throes of death and pangs of hell. These are not the normal descriptions of childbirth pains, but an intensified experience in bringing forth the Messiah. The whole description of the event is almost poetic and not at all historical. [51]

Prophets in OT

The prophets describe the transition of the community in terms of a painful childbirth. This image is taken up in rabbinical literature as a metaphor for the coming of the messianic age. [52] The sense is similar to the Qumran community’s approach noted above. This image of childbirth feeds on the images of the community as a woman noted in the background section above. The birth pangs represent the spiritual travail of the community based on the prophetic texts. [53]

Paschal MysteryÑlabor pains are connected to the pain on the cross

If the birth pangs signal the coming of the messianic age, the Christian community might associate this with the crucifixion, not the birth of the messiah. The very description of the pains in the text is not the normal way to describe birth pains. The verb and present tense form here are not used anywhere else in the LXX, NT, papyri, fathers or Greek literature to describe childbirth. The same forms are used in Revelation to describe the torment inflicted upon the wicked by God. This emphasis on the pain in the woman makes the contrast with her glorified description even more striking. The contrast of glory and pain make more sense as an expression of the crucifixion rather than the birth at Bethlehem. [54] Thus the birth described in Revelation 12 is not the messianic birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but the birth on Easter Sunday. Acts and Hebrews call the Resurrection a birth. [55]

The sword in Luke

Simeon predicts that Mary will have a sword pierce her heart. This is understood to the pain Mary will feel at the coming passion of Christ. More than simple mother’s pain over son, She is the representative of community. As the representative, she shares in the pain of passion. Luke describes this pain in the sword. Mary experiences this pain as the church. [56]

Summary birth pangs section

The description of the birth in Chapter 12 of Revelation is not one of historical times of a woman in Bethlehem, but a description of the coming of the messiah in the cosmic realm. Christians intimately connect this messianic age to the pain of the cross. Mary has a role in experiencing this pain via the prophecy of Simeon.

The book is half over before the Messiah is born

The placement of this birth in the middle of the book is a structural problem for some. If this is Mary giving birth to Jesus, the event should be at the start of the narrative. This would be the sequence expected from the Gospel literature. One answer to this difficulty would be to accept the structural analysis outlined above that makes Chapter 12 part of the introduction to the second part of the book. Structurally, this would place the birth at the opening of the story. Another alternative is to see the placement as consistent with the overall Johannine corpus as expressed by the Gospel of John.

John’s Gospel structure supports the placement

In the John’s Gospel the birth images first appear at last supper discourse (John 16:21), not at the opening of the Gospel. Mary appears in the wedding scene with the title Òwoman.Ó Jesus uses this same title again when she stands at the foot of the cross. The title is one of the connections used between Mary and Eve in the patristic typologies mentioned above. In the first scene, Jesus says that his hour has not come, in the second his hour has arrived. For John the hour of glorification is the cross. The woman seen in the glory of heaven in Revelation 12 thematically and verbally connects to Mary in these Johannine scenes. There are both individual and communal dimensions to the identity. [57]

Mary is at foot of cross as the ideal for the community. She fulfils Zechariah’s prophecy as the one who Òlooked on him who was pierced.Ó The person looking and thus sharing in the suffering servant is Mary. The blood and water pours out. The spiritual piercing is the community’s sacramental participation in the event. The woman in revelation 12 is both in glory and suffering. In a sense, this pain is a participation of Mary in that passion event at the time of the passion. The pain of childbirth in Revelation is the birth on the cross, not the birth of Bethlehem. [58]

This analysis depends on a common authorship of Revelation and John. Pointing to a different author for Revelation and John’s Gospel can raise objections to this parallel in pattern as evidence. While the differences in grammar and style are well documented, there is still a consistency in vocabulary, usage and general thought between the two books. Even some that insist the specific hand is different in Revelation from John’s Gospel see the relationship of the two books by school of thought. [59]

The Woman in Revelation 12

Who is the woman in Revelation 12? The answer is all of the above. The Ethiopian Amharic andemta sees three senses in the woman: teacher, faithful community and Mary. All three are asserted and explained successively in the same commentary. These senses are not mutually exclusive but simply operate at different levels of the same image. [60]

Even among those who chose either Mary or the Church as the identity of the woman, there are a number of commentators who see both. Some say the primary sense is Mary with a secondary referent of the Church while others say the reverse. But they all recognize the complementary nature of the two identifications. [61]

An all-encompassing interpretation adds value to the path of the images through the whole book. With the woman being both Mary and the Church, she also connects with the bride in chapter 21. The New Jerusalem can be seen as the same image. In the Jewish tradition the city of Zion is a Òdaughter.Ó The city is seen as a woman to such an extent that the beloved of the Song of Songs 6:4 is compared to the city of Tizra in her beauty. [62] All of these titles and images are bound together and interlocking, and these titles become associated with Mary in patristic literature.

Mary is at once a personal identification, but communal too. She is Eve, daughter Zion, and the church. These all tie in different levels of symbols. We can readily pass back and forth from the individual to the communal. With the poetic nature of the vision and narrative it is not fair to restrict the identity of the woman in Revelation 12 to just one of these. John is speaking in poetic terms and allows this woman to become all things to all people. The woman is not clearly identified in the text, even though the antagonist in the same scene is named Satan. Why would John clearly name and label the one major character and not the other? He does not identify the woman because she encompasses all the possible identities of the tradition. She is Mary. She is the Christian community. She is the teacher and mother of us all.

[1] There are about 1650 variants in only 400 verses of text, not including simple spelling issues. By comparison, the Catholic Epistles have 1100 variants in 432 verses. At the same time there are some 520 manuscripts with the Catholic Epistles and only 230 for Revelation. For the manuscript evidence of the text see Isbon Thaddeus Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John: studies in introduction with a critical and exegetical commentary (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1922), 411-14. Henry Barclay Swete, The Apocalypse of St. John the Greek text with introduction, notes and indices, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1911), clxxxvi-cxcvi. James Moffatt, “The Revelation of St. John the divine,” in The expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), 281-85. Charles details what he sees as interpolations into the text from the transmission process and dislocations of text blocks as well. Some of these dislocations in the closing chapters of the book affect his analysis of the structure (see below). He also sees lacunae in the text that sometimes accompanied by interpolations. None of these are in Chapter 12. Robert Henry Charles, A critical and exegetical commentary on the Revelation of St. John, with introduction, notes, and indices, also the Greek text and English translation, International Critical Commentary, vol. 47 (New York: Scribner, 1920; reprint, 1950), lvi-lxi. For a discussion of the grammatical issues in the text of Revelation see section 136 of BDF, F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek grammar of the New Testament and other Early Christian literature, trans. Robert W Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 75-76. Beckwith, 222-39. Moffatt, 320-22. and Swete, cxxiii-cxxvi.

[2] Some editions will include a verse 18 in Chapter 12 while others end at 17 and the text of verse 18 is the opening of Chapter 13. There is no textual difference in either case. This is simply a judgement on narrative transition between the two scenes. In verse 12 some important manuscripts drop Òand half a timeÓ from the series Òtime, times, and half a time.Ó The longer reading is supported in the oldest witnesses and the omission is easily explained by scribal error on the repeating words. Finally, in verse 18 there is a question of who stands on the seashore. Does the dragon stand there before coming out of the sea as in the oldest extant manuscripts? Or does John stand there as in the majority of manuscripts in the Byzantine text type? Details on the supporting manuscripts for these variants in chapter 12 can be found in Kurt Aland and others, The Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Society, 1966), 864-66. Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad, The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, ed. Harry Sturz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982), 759-61. Text critical details on the Bohairic versions in chapter 12 are found in Herman Charles Hoskier, Concerning the date of the Bohairic Version: covering a detailed examination of the text of the Apocalypse and a review of some of the writings of the Egyptian monks (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1911), 33-40. Here Hoskier argues that the text of Sinacticus shows Coptic influences in the Apocalypse. In a broader text critical study Hoskier compiles exhaustive manuscript evidence and descriptions for the entire book of Revelation. This is a complete text critical collation of manuscript evidence, versions, and the fathers for Revelation. This includes a full description of all the manuscript sources. Volume one of this study is a catalog of manuscripts with their descriptions. The witnesses are all organized by family text type. Herman Charles Hoskier, Concerning the text of the Apocalypse: collations of all existing available Greek documents with the standard text of Stephen’s third edition, together with the testimony of versions, commentaries and fathers; a complete conspectus of all authorities, 2 vols. vol. 1 (1929). The second volume is the collation of the text with all variants in situ with notation of the source. Chapter 12 is covered here: Hoskier, Concerning the text of the Apocalypse: collations of all existing available Greek documents with the standard text of Stephen’s third edition, together with the testimony of versions, commentaries and fathers; a complete conspectus of all authorities, 310-32. An interesting text critical debate between the Alexandrine and Byzantine text form of Revelation represented by Tregelles and Tomlin respectively is here: Jacob Tomlin, Critical remarks on Dr. Tregelles’ Greek text of the Revelation and his two English versions compared with the Received Text and Authorised translation, ATLA monograph preservation program (Liverpool: Arthur Newling, 1865).

[3] Beckwith, 216-17.

[4] This structure proposes some textual dislocations towards the end of the narrative. They represent Charles opinion on the redaction activity in the text during the editorial process. Their location near the end of the book does not affect the analysis of chapter 12. His proposed dislocations in chapters 1-20 all occur within these structural sections. Charles, xxiii-xxviii.

[5] Moffatt, 285-92. A simpler version of this Òstructure by visionÓ approach is advocated by Swete, xxxviii-xli. Both of these proposed structures would treat the material in chapters 12-13 as part of the same vision.

[6] Adela Yarbro Collins, The combat myth in the book of Revelation, Harvard dissertations in religion, vol. 9 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976), 13-17.

[7] Raymond Brown and others, eds., Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 221.

[8] Swete, xxxiii-xxxvi.

[9] Ibid., xxxvi-xxxvii.

[10] The exact repeating of language, especially from the opening and closing of the book, demonstrate the literary unity of Revelation. Ibid., xlvi-lii.

[11] Woman and dragon is 1-5, 13-7. The battle for heaven is 7-10, 12.

[12] Charles, lxiii, 305-14. . Gunkel would see these two scenes not as two sources, but a repetition of the vision. In this view the two scenes recount the same event from different views. These are in turn an editing of the Marduk myth to this Christian context. This editorial process removed the extensive references to the dragon from the original. Hermann Gunkel, Sch˘pfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit : eine religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung uber Gen 1 und Ap Joh. 12, ed. Heinrich Zimmern (G˘ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1895), 272-77.

[13] The candidates for this goddess image are Ephesian Artemis, Syrian Atargatis, and Egyptian Isis. All of these had cultic followings throughout the region. Adela Yarbro Collins, “The book of Revelation,” in The Encyclopedia of Apocalyptiscism, ed. John J. Collins (New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1998), 408. Collins, The combat myth, 71-76. Babylonian mother of Marduk, Damkina and Isis are proposed by Moffatt, 423. . A more detailed justification for the identification with Damkina is found in Gunkel, 385-97. Comments on Gunkel’s interpretation Pierre Prigent, Apocalypse 12; histoire de l’ex≥g≤se, Beitrπge zur Geschichte der biblischen Exegese, vol. 2 (TŸbingen: Mohr, 1959), 122-24.

[14] Vergil has serpents with blood-red crests attack Laokoon. Homer has a dragon with a blood red back, Illiad II. An Egyptian dragon named Typhon is also blood red. Moffatt, 424. . Beckwith, 623-24. Lotan of Ugaritic texts, the shining red dragon Labbu associated with Tiamat in Accadian texts and Typhon sent by Zeus in Greek texts Collins, The combat myth, 77-79.

[15] Beckwith, 614-15. Collins, The combat myth, 63-65. JŸgen U Kalms, Der Sturz des Gottesfeindes : traditionsgeschichtliche Studien zu Apokalypse 12 (Neukirchen-Vluyen: Neukirchener Verlag, 2001), 114-22. Prigent, 120-21.

[16] Moffatt, 424. Collins, The combat myth, 62-63.

[17] Beckwith, 615.

[18] Collins, The combat myth, 61-62.

[19] Beckwith, 618. . Charles, 307-08. Collins, The combat myth, 79-81. Prigent, 124-27.

[20] Examples are 1 Enoch, allusions in Isaiah 14:12-20, where the rebels are confined in Sheol after the battle. Life of Adam and Eve 12-17, where the devil refuses to worship Adam as the image of God, so he is banished from heaven and hurled down to earth. Collins, The combat myth, 81-83. Other background suggested for Michael’s war with dragonÑGen 6:1-4; Enoch 6-19; Jubilees 5; Adam and Eve 12-17. Struggle of Michael with guardian of Persia in Dan 10:13, 20; 12:1-2. Brown and others, eds., 228.

[21] The evil beasts alluded to by this figure are found in Daniel 7, Job 7:12, Psalm 74:14, 89:10, Isaiah 27:1, Ezekiel 32:2, Wisdom 2:24 as cited in Beckwith, 623-24. Moffatt, 426. Swete, 149.

[22] Sun around woman with the 12 stars as the patriarchs, is seen by many as an allusion to Joseph’s dream about his brothers in Genesis 37. A woman’s beauty is described in terms of the sun and moon in Song of Songs 6:10 and Wisdom 7:29. God wears the sun as a cloak in Psalm 104:2. Psalms 8 uses the images of the heavens as the evidence of God’s glory. Beckwith, 622-23. Swete, 147.

[23] Some would see the escape of the woman into the desert as the Christian community leaving Jerusalem during the siege and ultimate destruction of the city by Rome in 70 AD. But this is the minority opinion; most see the Exodus references in the scene. Elijah’s protection in the wilderness in 3 Kings 17 is a similar allusion to the exodus in the Old Testament. An example from intertestamental-literature is found in the Assumption of Moses 108. The Eagle’s wings is an image from Exodus 19:4 & Deuteronomy 32:11. Isaiah 40:31 uses the image in a similar way. The flood of the dragon’s mouth is like escaping pharaoh through the Red Sea in Exodus 14. Beckwith, 628-30. Brown and others, eds., 231. Andr≥ Feuillet, Jesus and His mother : according to the Lucan infancy narratives, and according to St. John : the role of the Virgin Mary in salvation history and the place of woman in the Church, trans. Leonard Maluf ( Still River, Ma: St. Bede’s Publications, 1984), 23-25. Josephine Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, introduction, translation and commentary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 38 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), 191-93. Moffatt, 427-28. Swete.

[24] Lucien Cerfaux, L’Apocalypse de Saint Jean lue aux chr≥tiens, ed. Jules Cambier, Lectio divina, vol. 17 (Paris: ƒditions du Cerf, 1964), 109-10.

[25] The struggle between the seed of the woman and the serpent will culminate with the woman’s male seed crushing the serpent. The grammar can be read to see a future sense of an individual male role for this event. Stephen Rowe, “An exegetical approach to Gen. 3:15,” Marian Studies 12 (1961): 63-66.

[26] Apocalypse of Baruch 4, 4 Esdra 9:38-10:59 as cited in Moffatt, 424.

[27] Beracoth II. 5 as cited in Beckwith, 614. Moffatt, 423.

[28] .Collins argues that this combat myth pattern is repeated in all the series of sevens in Revelation, not just in chapter 12. Collins, The combat myth, 59-61.

[29] A review the arguments in favor of prior written Jewish and Christian sources for Revelation 12 can be found in Prigent, 128-33.

[30] Beckwith, 615-16. Brown and others, eds., 22. Charles, 299. Ford, 191. Roger Cowley, The traditional interpretation of the Apocalypse of St. John in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications, vol. 33 (New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1983), 117. Moffatt, 425. . Swete, 151. .

[31] Feuillet, 21.

[32] A typical application of the flight to Egypt allusion is in Bishop of Tricca Oecumenius, The complete commentary of Oecumenius on the Apocalypse, now printed for the first time from manuscripts at Messina, Rome, Salonika, and Athos, ed. Herman Charles Hoskier, Humanistic Series, vol. 23 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1928), 142. Another is in the Ethiopian Amharic andemta in Cowley, 291-92. The application of Revelation to actual historical times is unusual in Oecumenius. He takes most of Revelation eschatologically. Only the woman in chapter 12, the six seals and the 1000-year reign are seen as events already fulfilled by his time, as noted by Cliff DuRousseau, “The commentary of Oecumenius on the Apocalypse of John,” Biblical Research 29 (1984): 31-32. Rejecting the application of the flight to Egypt in Revelation 12 is the Ethiopian commentary Tergwame Qπlπmsis in Cowley, 120.

[33] Eustace Smith, “The scriptural basis for Mary’s queenship,” Marian Studies 4 (1953): 112-13. This progression of titles of Mary is outlined in Malachi Donnelly, “The queenship of Mary during the patristic period,” Marian Studies 4 (1953): 86-91.

[34] Other contemporaneous examples are provided here as well. Donnelly: 94.

[35] St. John of Damascus is noted as the chief apologist for ÒQueen of HeavenÓ as a title for Mary in this period. Numerous other examples are also cited. Ibid.: 97.

[36] The connection of Mary to Eve by opposites is first implied by Justin and first explicit by Iraenaus. Dominic Unger, “Use of sacred scripture in Mariology,” Marian Studies 1 (1950): 93-95. A review of pre-sixth century connections of Mary to Eve in the Genesis 3 story is in Shea’s article. The article argues that Gen 3:15 is interpreted as a reference to Mary at least implicitly from a very early period in Patristic exegesis. The references are arranged chronologically and include: Justin, Ireanus, Cyprian, Serapion, Ephraem, Ambrose, Pseudo-Jerome, Epiphanius, Prudenyius, Isadore of Pelusium, Hesychius, Leo, Chrysippus, and Isadore of Seville. Revelation 12 is explicitly linked to this interpretation by Ephrem Dominic J. Shea, “Patristic interpretation of the Protoevangelium,” Marian Studies 12 (1961): 130. and Hesychius. Shea: 153. Other samples of Patristic literature with Eve/Mary typology are: Irenaeus Bertrand Buby, Mary of Galilee, vol. III The Marian Heritage of the Early Church (New York: Alba House, 1996), 18-28. & Luigi Gambero, Mary and the fathers of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 52-58. ; Ephrem the Syrian Buby, 318-21. & Gambero, 116-19. ; Tertullian Buby, 82-84. ; Augustine Buby, 186-90. , Epiphanius Gambero, 124-25. ; Amphilochius of Iconium Buby, 252-53. & Gambero, 168-70. ; Cyril of Jerusalem Buby, 213-14. . The parallel of Eve & Mary in Revelation 12 in the context of the Papal bull on the Assumption of Mary is detailed in George Bissonnette, “The twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse and our Lady’s assumption,” Marian Studies 2 (1951): 171-73. This connection to the Assumption is deemed untenable by Feuillet, 25-26. But he still sees the Eve to Mary connection in the text.

[37] Feuillet, 205-07.

[38] For an outline of the difficulties with the Òwoman as MaryÓ position see Hildegard Gollinger, Das grosse Zeichen von Apokalypse 12, Stuttgarter biblische Monographien, vol. 11 (WŸrzburg: Echter, 1971), 27-41.

[39] Surveys of patristic interpretation of revelation can be found in Beckwith, 319-33. Charles, xcvii-ciii. Prigent, 3-9. Swete, cxcvii-ccv.

[40] Haer. 78, 11; PG 42, 716 B-C as cited in, Gambero, 126. However, the dating of this particular passage in Epiphanius could be much later, as it is preserved in quotation only.

[41] Oecumenius, 135-36.

[42] Fathers before Origen are almost universally literal in interpretation. Origen advocates for spiritual interpretation. Augustine proposes a melding of the two. Collins, “The book of Revelation,” 409-11. Also see the surveys of patristic interpretation mentioned above.

[43] Oecumenius, 141-42.

[44] Paul in Romans 9:4-5 & Galatians 4:26 demonstrates that even in the New Testament period this was one way Christians thought of the birth of Jesus. Moffatt, 424. Commentators who identify the woman as the Church include, William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Revised ed., The daily study Bible series, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), 75. Beckwith, 621-22. Bertrand Buby, Mary of Galilee, vol. I Mary in the New Testament (New York: Alba House, 1994), 146-53. Robert Bratcher, A translator’s guide to the Revelation to John, Helps for translators (London: United Bible Society, 1984), 96. Ford, 195-96. Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 16 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 130-31. Moffatt, 425. and Prigent, 141-43. For a survey of the woman as a community interpretation see Gollinger, 42-72.

[45] Samplings of patristic thought on Mary/Church typology are Clement Buby, Mary of Galilee, 72-74. , Irenaeus Buby, Mary of Galilee, 24-28. Ephrem the Syrian Gambero, 115-16. ; Ambrose of Milan Gambero, 198-99. ; Augustine Buby, Mary of Galilee, 186-90. & Gambero, 222-25. ; Cyril of Alexandria Buby, Mary of Galilee, 295-98. ; Isadore of Seville Gambero, 376-77.

[46] Feuillet, 26-27. In reviewing the earliest Greek and Latin commentators, Swete notes that the two views Mary and the Church are not wholly inconsistent. Swete, 148. Other commentators who see a dual meaning, Mary and the Church, in the text are: Brown and others, eds., 232-35. Cerfaux, 102-03. and Andr≥ Feuillet, The Apocalypse, trans. Thomas E. Crane (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1965), 115-16. However, there are ancient authorities that are unambiguous in identifying the woman as the Church without reference to Mary at all, Tergwame Qπlπmsis in the Ethiopian tradition in, Cowley, 116.

[47] Feuillet, Jesus and His mother, 205.

[48] The Joseph allegory is from Oecumenius, 137. The Numbers parallel is found in Amharic andemta in Ethiopian commentaries. Cowley, 288-89.

[49] The Ethiopian commentary Tergwame Qπlπmsis takes this position. Cowley, 120.

[50] Brown and others, eds., 230-31. Prigent, 142. Brown notes that on the publication of this Qumran Psalm most commentators immediately linked this to Revelation 12 based on similar messianic views. While Brown acknowledges the similarities, he instead argues for a parallel with Revelation 3 based on content seeing this as eschatological rather than messianic. Nevertheless, I suggest the connection between the pains of birth and the coming messianic age seems clear. Schuyler Brown, “Deliverance from the crucible: some further reflexions on 1 QH iii. 1-18,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967-68). Collins does see the text as an allusion to the birth of the messiah. But the parallel to Revelation 12 is weak because the birth and the adversary are the only points of narrative contact. Collins, The combat myth, 61-69.

[51] Andr≥ Feuillet, Johannine studies, trans. Thomas E. Crane (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1965), 267-70.

[52] Brown and others, eds., Mary in the New Testament, 230-31. Harrington, 129-30.

[53] Early commentators with this interpretation include Hippolytus, Augustine and Andreas. Swete, 148. Isaiah 26:17; 54:1; 66:7-9; Micah 4:10. Isaiah 26:17; 66:7; 60:19-20. A summary of Israel prophetic references is in Brown and others, eds., Mary in the New Testament, 230-31.

[54] The other uses of basanizo in Revelation are 9:5, 11:10, 14:10, 11, 18:7, 10, 15, & 20:10. Feuillet, Johannine studies, 262-63.

[55] Buby, Mary of Galilee.

[56] Isaiah 66:7-9, Acts 3:32-33, Hebrews 1:5. Feuillet, Jesus and His mother, 47-53. See also p205

[57] Feuillet, The Apocalypse, 116-17. Feuillet, Jesus and His mother, 20.

[58] Zechariah 12:10. Feuillet, Jesus and His mother, 47-53.

[59] Charles, xxix-l. Moffatt, 320-24. and Swete, cxxvi-cxxx. Beckwith presents the opposite view that the two authors could not have been from the same school based on the differences in language, theology and eschatology. Beckwith, 353-62.

[60] This is the position taken by the Amharic andemta commentary on Revelation. All three identifications of the woman are asserted as operative simultaneously. Cowley, 287-88.

[61] Brown and others, eds., Mary in the New Testament, 235.

[62] Buby, Mary of Galilee, 146-47. Feuillet, Johannine studies, 275-76.


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Originally Posted March 21, 2009
Last Revised on October 13, 2012